Written by the American Expat in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai, you will see temples and fortresses everywhere much older than our entire history in the United States. The food, the arts, the farming and so much more in Northern Thailand are based on ancient exotic cultures. You feel it everywhere you go in this city, and it is an adventure into the past that you cannot find anywhere in the US. There are also people that seemed to have stepped out of pre-history and are all around you in this area, most notably the hill tribe people that you see coming down from the mountains to Chiang Mai. It is exhilarating, and I want to introduce you to one of the hill tribe groups to give you some of the flavor of this wonderful kingdom. .
This is the Largest Ethnic Hill Tribe in Thailand, joined together with Karen people in Burma in dense local forests. The Karen people make up about half of the hill tribe population of Thailand, with about 1/2 million Karen within all Thailand, and the population total of Karen people in Burma and Thailand is somewhere between 2 or 3 million. In Thailand, they are also called Kariang or Nyang (or Yang). Karen people speak the Karen language, and there are small differences in the language for the various Karen groups.
There are three or four main groups of Karen, the best known being the Sgaw and Pwo (‘male’ and ‘female’). They live more to the south than the Bghai or Bwe and Padaung (longneck).
The Karen people have their own state in Myanmar (Burma), where they have borne the brunt of a long tradition of repression.
In Thailand they live primarily in Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Lampang but are also found in Phrae, Chiang Rai, Tak and all along the western border of Thailand (map). About one third of the Thai Karen live in Chiang Mai province. Karen people tend to settle in the valleys, at about a maximum of 500 meters above sea level.
Traditionally ancestor worshipers, many Karen have become Christian or Buddhist; others remain animist.
Physically often quite attractive, and usually convivial, traditional Karen are known for their jungle skills. Renowned as foresters and for their ability with elephants (they’re the only hill-tribe mahouts, or elephant driver), many are excellent trekking guides. For Northern Thai tourists that visit elephant camps, they will find that most of the elephant trainers and drivers are Karen.
If one asks the people of the village what is distinctive about being Karen, after mentioning the ability to speak and read the Karen language, the second answer given will always be the wearing of Karen clothing. The upper garments worn by men, women, and children are constructed from two strips of hand-woven cloth, the width depending on the size of the wearer. These strips are folded in half, the fold forming the shoulders of the garment. They are then stitched together, leaving openings for the head and arms which are bound with braid of a contrasting color which becomes a part of the decoration. Most often men and boys wear red or blue Karen shirts, single women wear long white cotton shifts, and married women wear red sarongs and black or blue over-blouses decorated with embroidery and seeds–the two-piece construction making it more convenient for nursing mothers. Woven Karen shoulder bags are used by both men and women and are produced in any color and popularly sold throughout all of Thailand. To protect the head against the cold or heat, both men and women often wear terry-cloth towels as turbans. On special occasions, such as a wedding, a woman will wear a hand-woven highly decorated red and white turban with a long fringe.
The importance of dress is best displayed around the time of a Karen wedding. The night before the wedding is to take place, the family of the bride will invite their friends and relatives to their home for a religious service of general thanksgiving where prayers are offered for the girl and her family as she becomes a married woman and an adult member of her community. Before this service the family of the bride will slaughter one or more pigs and offer a feast for all of the wedding guests. The wedding is held in the brides home, and the new husband will usually move into the household.
The Karen traditionally built simple houses on stilts, usually using split bamboo for walls
and floors, with roofs made of thatch or grass. Chickens, pigs, buffalo, and cattle are kept under the house at night. Adjacent to the house is an outhouse and a granary made of the same materials. The granery is used for the storage of rice, squash, and pumpkins as well as farm equipment. Many houses also have rice-pounders under the house. Homes today are more modern being built from lumber, rather than bamboo, and brick and cement block is increasingly being used in designs more typical of the houses in small Thai villages.
The Karen are subsistence farmers–they eat only what they are able to grow or raise. A few Karen families are able to grow a surplus of rice or vegetables, or raise more animals than they eat, and are therefore able to sell their surpluses to the markets in Chiang Mai.
The Karen, like all other ethnic groups, are confronted with social change. As much as they want to maintain their Karen ethnic identity within the country of Thailand, they are being pressured to assimilate into the larger society. Some of the social changes promote what Karen consider to be a better life for their families–they have greater access to education, health care, food, transportation, communication, better housing, ample water, warm clothing, and energy to light their homes and cook their food. Yet, such benefits may come at the cost of losing their Karen culture.
Increasingly the primary language of Karen children is Thai and presently few children are able to read and write their tribal language. Traditional Karen dress, an important source of ethnic pride and identity, is now reserved for special occasions. The performance of ancestral Karen music and dance is so rare that even most middle-age adults are unable to participate. Historic Karen stories, poems, and songs are no longer a part of the collective memory.
In the Walking Street Markets held every Saturday and Sunday evening in Chiang Mai, you can find Karen children playing traditional music and performing traditional Karen dancing in their brightly colored Karen clothing. There is also always several Karen merchants selling Karen clothing and bags. To step into the Karen culture even for a short time is a wonderful adventure.
This is the best guidebook to take on your trip to Thailand.…